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September 30, 1983, Mesa, Arizona—The first Apache AH-64A attack helicopter rolled out of Mesa’s Hughes Helicopters plant. Fourteen years later, in 1997, the U.S. Army’s last AH-64A was delivered—the 937th Apache produced. Currently in the midst of an upgrade, the Apache remains the backbone of U.S. Army close air support.

The U.S. Army solicited initial designs for a new attack helicopter in 1972, choosing the Hughes prototype in 1976 (the Apache was later produced by Boeing). Primarily intended as a tank killer, in the event of a massive charge of Soviet armor into Western Europe, the Apache never served that purpose, and instead saw its first action during Operation Just Cause, the 1989 invasion of Panama. Firing the first shot of the air war in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm, it has played a vital role in both Iraq wars. It currently sees such heavy use in Iraq that the U.S. Army fleet passed the 2 million flight hours mark in April 2006.

The newest version of the Apache is the AH-64D Longbow (B and C models were built, but never entered service). The AH-64D is most easily distinguished by its rotor-mast-mounted drum to support the “Longbow” fire control radar, which enables the helicopter to engage hostile forces with fire-and-forget radar-guided Hellfire missiles.

The first upgraded Apache entered service in 1997, and the Army plans to convert over 500 of its Apache fleet to the Longbow standard, with the remaining AH-64As slated to be transferred to the National Guard.


September 26, 1918, over eastern France—French fighter pilot René Fonck, the highest-scoring Allied ace of World War I, shot down six German adversaries, bringing his total to 66. Not known for his modesty, Fonck later wrote of a slight disappointment: “If my machine gun hadn’t jammed, I would have added eight planes to my credit.”

September 26 marked the second time he had shot down six German aircraft. The first came on May 9, when he managed to surprise the enemy by darting in and out of thick fog. That fog caused him to lose sight of his own squadron, Escadrille Spa. 103, but that was fine by Fonck. “I prefer to fly alone in the middle of adversaries anyway, without having the additional responsibility of protecting my comrades,” he wrote. “Camaraderie imposes upon us the duty of rescuing a compatriot who is in a bad spot…above all, I like my freedom of action.” This lone wolf attitude was hardly unique among pilots of his day. What was unique was Fonck’s self-discipline, which led him to avoid the carousing common among fliers. He told a reporter that the secret to his success was a thorough understanding of his plane (a Spad VII, and later a Spad XIII) and “to avoid all excess and train as for a prizefight.” He continued, “I know there are good pilots who play the fool on leave, but they lose their nerve or get killed.”

This self-restraint on the ground paid dividends in the air. As he explained in his postwar memoir Ace of Aces, what made the difference was having “the patience, while fighting, to wait for the moment my adversaries gave way to nervous irritation—the fatal mistake.” Through coolheaded maneuvering, Fonck was able to both avoid enemy fire—he claimed only one bullet ever struck his plane during his time with Spa. 103— and bring down German opponents with startling economy. His ammunition bursts were “from eight to ten bullets at the maximum, and often…not more than three.” This precision reached its peak when he shot down three enemy planes in a span of just 10 seconds on August 14, 1918.

Fonck’s coolness under pressure and avoidance of overly risky missions (he was averse to flying deep into enemy territory) allowed him to become the highest-scoring ace to survive the war. He made a bid for peacetime glory in September 1926, when he took the controls of a Sikorsky S-35 in what was to be the first transatlantic voyage. The overloaded plane crashed on takeoff, however, and before Fonck could make his second attempt, Charles Lindbergh’s Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis had touched down in Paris.


Originally published in the September 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here